NEW DELHI: Senior BJP leader Dharmendra Pradhan hinted Sunday his party may not project a chief ministerial face in Odisha, where assembly and Lok Sabha polls are held together, and asserted it will end the two-decade reign of Naveen Patnaik on the back of PM Narendra Modi's popular appeal and development work.
Pradhan, a Union minister and key BJP face from Odisha, also rejected the suggestion that his party was looking at Biju Janata Dal (BJD) as a potential ally after the Lok Sabha polls, saying Chief Minister Patnaik is fuelling such speculation as he was "shaken" with the saffron party's rise.
"We are in a direct fight with the BJD. We are sure to emerge as the number one party and also get a majority in the assembly. The BJP is rising and Modi enjoys a lot of credibility in the state. To survive this, he has spread this (speculation) that he may support the BJP," he told PTI in an interview.
Patnaik, a former ally of the BJP, has maintained that his party BJD believes in keeping equidistant from both the Congress and the BJP.
His decision to keep away from unity efforts of opposition parties has given rise to speculation that he is open to the possibility of supporting the saffron party Asked if the BJP will announce its chief ministerial candidate, Pradhan said Modi will be its main face and noted that it had won in a number of states such as Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Tripura without projecting any leader for the top post.
Seen by many political watchers as his party's likely choice for the hot seat if it wins in the assembly polls, Pradhan said the BJP is working with a "collective leadership" in Odisha.
"It (chief ministerial candidate) is not our priority.Our priority is to make the BJP the number one party in the state," he asserted.
The 49-year-old leader has handled several important organisational responsibilities for the party and is said to enjoy the confidence of Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.
Mounting a sharp attack on Patnaik, Pradhan said he was elected to power again and again because the opposition was too weak to highlight his "corrupt, incompetent and insensitive" rule under which even basic facilities like drinking water, electricity and health services were not provided to most citizens.
Patnaik's call for ending 'PC (percentage commission) culture' in the state is a case of "chor machaye shor" (thief making noise), the BJP leader said, claiming that the chief minister is a part and parcel of this culture.
To a question about Patnaik's perceived image of a clean administrator, he said there cannot be a "bigger lie and joke" as he referred to the Shah commission's report on mining irregularities in Odisha and also the chit-fund scams in the state.
Citing the report, he said over Rs 60,000 crore was siphoned off while people in the state lost over Rs 30,000 crore in chit-fund scams in which several BJD leaders are either in jail or facing charges in courts.
Pradhan said the BJP now has the organisational strength to "expose" the Patnaik government and is in a position to offer an alternative vision for governing the state.
The Modi government's development works- including boosting road, rail and air travel connectivity, spreading the use of cooking gas cylinders from 20 lakh connections to 75 lakh, connecting all its villages with electricity- will be the main drivers of the BJP's campaign in the Lok Sabha and assembly polls in the state, he said.
"No central government has done as much for the state as the Modi dispensation has," he asserted.
The BJP could not capitalise on the 2014 "Modi wave" in the state due to its lack of organisational capacity but it has come a long way since, he said, noting that the party emerged as the main challenger to the BJD in the panchayat polls by bagging over 33 per cent of votes.
The saffron party had garnered 21 per cent of votes and won only one of the state's 21 Lok Sabha seats, with the BJD winning the remainder 20 by bagging over 44 per cent of votes.
The Congress had won 26 per cent of votes but its vote share has since declined in the by-elections and local polls. The Congress, Pradhan claimed, has crumbled in the state. "It has zero strength and no leadership. The anti-BJD votes will rally around the BJP in the coming polls," he said.
The popularity and credibility of Modi in the state remains high, Pradhan said, adding that the prime minister's appeal will be the "game-changer".
In the 2014 assembly poll, Patnaik had led the BJD to power for a fourth straight term with the party winning 117 seats in the 147-member assembly with the Congress and the BJP bagging 16 and 10 seats respectively.
Pradhan claimed there is a popular discontent against Patnaik's 19-year-old uninterrupted reign in the state, especially among the youths, women and tribals, due to lack of essential infrastructure and employment opportunities causing migration.
Elevated as a Cabinet minister by Modi in 2017 after being first given the responsibility of a minister of state with independent charge following the BJP's win in 2014 general election, Pradhan is in-charge of the important petroleum and natural gas portfolio.
He has drawn praise from the BJP leadership for steering Ujjwala scheme, which provides free LPG connection to the poor households.